Learn foreign languages by having fun reading. Part 2

I once asked Michel Thomas about studying on my own.

He urged me to read in the language I was studying.

“Read what you enjoy and don’t look up words in a dictionary. Just keep on reading,” he told me.

His advice was built on the fact that when we simply relax into whatever we are doing, we will recall much more than if we set out to recall and remember stuff.

Thus, simply reading becomes a way of taking one’s mind out of the ” I am doing this to improve my vocabulary” mode.

It is nice in that I find myself using vocabulary and sentence construction that I never sat down to formally learn.

Recently I was speaking French with a lady whom I had just met. She was very upset about some things in her life and found it hard to speak English. So we spoke French.

I had learned French with Michel Thomas in the 1990’s but hadn’t spoken much since. However, on this day it all just poured out including a lot of vocabulary and sentences that I had never worked on.

I figure it must have come from my reading light material in French over the years. When reading these texts I simply pushed on whether I understood every word or not. Michel told me that if the same word kept coming up and it was really bugging me then I could look it up. Otherwise, don’t look it up. Just read and enjoy whatever it is. If it is really interesting then you will unconsciously make pictures and that will reinforce your understanding of the language.

From context the unconscious figures out what the words mean just like a kid learning a language understands that you use this or that word in certain situations.

Today Boris, my Russian teacher, went through a spontaneous riff on how to ask someone to enter a room in Russian.

Say they knock on the door and you want to let them know that they should enter.

The way that is translated as ” enter” in the dictionary, he said, is actually almost a military command like proceed. This word is проходите. In my office I have been using this word almost daily with my secretary. She is Russian and we use the language to conduct business. It is one of the reasons I hired her. I now get to speak Russian daily as part of my work. Nice. She never told me that this is not the way that she would ask someone to enter. I am her employer. She understood but wasn’t about to give me such personal feedback. So Boris did. He told me that заходите is a less formal, less commanding form. да, да or можно are two very informal ways to indicate that you are OK with the person coming in. This is the fine tuning of language use. It is delightful for me to learn these things. It makes my experience of using the language a lot more satisfying and personal.

This is only something that can be learned in context.

So reading what you enjoy is a wonderful way to begin to learn such things.

( to be continued)

Author: Harold

13 thoughts on “Learn foreign languages by having fun reading. Part 2

  1. I never understood this concept of reading without a dictionary. I mean simple works yes, but I have novels in a target language and if I have no clue about the word, it will surely juset be discarded. I've seen this a lot just read and dont worry about needing a dictionary. This approach does not seem effective until you have a substantial amount of vocabulary, and even then it may still not be all that helpful with more complex books.

    Are there any studies on this? I would really not like to feel like I am wasting my time. I have so many contentions with this and the lookup words in monolingual dictionary (if not pocketsized and simple), because it really does seem that one needs to have quite the substantial vocab to derive context clue.

  2. @ Rue- I think (and I may perhaps be wrong) that what Michel and Dr. Goodman are saying is not to pause and look up each and every word you are unfamiliar with. Your not recognizing them may not always be of any serious consquence, i.e. the word may not be commonly used to begin with. Besides, frequently pausing to look up words breaks the flow of the verbal conversation which I suspect the brains need to have left in tact in order to construct the framework it needs to interact with the new language. In other words, you can get lost in the forest trying to identify each tree. I remember hearing Michel say that once you begin to read and interact with a language on a regular basis you will begin to see which words are probably necessary to look, given their frequency of use. The same is true for one's native language, you don't pull out a dictionary each time you see an English word you don't know. If you routinely see a word that you are unfamiliar with, or can't remember, look that one up; or if you are reading important instructions that you have to follow correctly, then look the word up. Otherwise, keep going and keep your attention on the broader conversation you are having with the literature (i.e. its grammar and general message).

    Hope this helps,

  3. Hi, DeMarcus


    My point and, I believe, his as well was simply to keep it simple, light.

    Trust that you are getting what you need even though your conscious mind is worried you are missing something.

    Many years ago I studied Buddhist meditation with Jack Kornfield. He told a story of when he was about to leave Asia after many years of living in a monastery. Do you have any advice for me when I return to the West, he asked an old monk.

    The monk said, If you are walking to the bus stop and you see the bus pulling out, don't run. There will be another bus.

    Keep in the moment and you will reach your goal.

    You are getting what you need.

  4. Dr Harold I have just finished your mandarin advance course and I am ready to move to the vocabulary one. Since I am going to China very soon could you please elaborate on your "Buddhist meditation" experience. In all I admire you both as a teacher and as a person! Wisdom and knowledge (although never achievable in full) are the only paths for true happiness (eudaemonia) I think you are doing pretty well.


  5. Hi,Julian

    Thanks for taking a moment to write a comment.

    I am doing this because I really want to help others. It makes me happy to do so.

    For many years I used to do a type of Buddhist mediation daily called mindfulness or vipassana meditation. It really helped me to get out of my overly busy head where I had little peace and into another space that was more spacious, more tranquil and ultimately more helpful.

    The vocabulary course is the third part of a three part Michel Thomas Mandarin Chinese course. It is called vocabulary because that is what the publisher chose to call it. It is not really a vocabulary course but it will help you finish up the basics of what I want you to have in order to be comfortably able to start swimming in Chinese.

    Have fun and please keep in touch!

  6. Dr Harold, Thank you so very much for your response!

    Indeed it seems that there is even some scientific evidence concerning the positive result of meditation on human brain: Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/pmc1361002/)

    Sometimes even when one appreciates heavily the quality of the book that he/she is reading or the whole intellectual endevour of learning, human brain needs to find a calm; a tranquil state to accommodate new information and eventually build innovative ideas or understand and reform existing ones. Add the "bombardment" of useless information by the media and you've got a head ready to explode.

    Having read your posts about your family environment and the lack of TV and your fondness in books I can realize how eventually you came to be a polyglot, a doctor and a modern philosopher. Could it also be the case that the spiritually accommodating environment that many jewish families offer to their children contributes substantially to a life searching for knowledge and wisdom? The modern cosmosystem owes a lot to great secular Jewish Scientists and since I am not fond of race theories I tend to approach this phenomenon on grounds of societal values and the family environment.

    Finally two comments about Michel Thomas and his approach on language learning.

    1. I think the only comparable in terms of efficiency method is pimsleur BUT Pimsleur's method is absolutely boring! One needs to spend 90 days hearing boring conversations to reach lets say a b1 (EU language Framework) in Oral Comprehension and Speaking and also get some intuition on grammar structures. MT method is way faster! 1-2 months and you got a solid b1 oral level. I am proud to confirm today that starting from ZERO! I have achieved a B2-C1 level in French in only 8 months and this is because MT gave me the foundations – the house to build the furniture – the vocabulary and open up the new language. ( I am not an english native speaker and thus French should be harder for me but guess what MT taught that haunting French Grammar in only 2 months!!! The French professor was shocked to find out I only had 2 months of French and I was that good in grammar exercises. I also think MT becomes addictive once you start you cant stop learning new languages… I am now 26 and I am determined to buy all available courses!

    2. On mandarin. Ok having finished part A (Foundation Course) and Part B (Advanced Course) I can confirm that I already had some kind of conversation with a native mandarin speaker…and yes she could comprehend me well! She said I need to work my speed but the tones were almost perfect and she couldn't believe I was only into a month's course. The only problem is that it is hard to follow MT Thomas Advice about reading half an hour every day of the language to eventually build even more structures and understanding. I think that the period I stay in China will be very valuable in terms of writing and reading Mandarin.

    Finally I have enjoyed very much your "oh but" comments during the course. For instance when the male student says (I yesterday in my friend's hotel restaurant ate super) he forgets the "de" or he adds it twice or he forgets wo and you have an amazing way of noticing it and helping him find the correct way to express it.

    In all Dr, nǐ hěn hǎo lǎoshī. Nǐ yě hěn yǒu yìse ren!



  7. Hi,Julian

    I enjoyed reading your comment. Thanks for taking a moment to write.

    I, too, think that growing up in a Jewish home was important for me. I am an American and thoroughly at home with American culture. However, I am also a well educated Jew and enjoy studying Jewish history, culture, languages, literature and other contributions.

    All of this has helped me to be a better person, I think. I see the world differently than if I had not had this extra layer of experience.

    The same is true of learning languages.

    Each new language provides us with the opportunity to see the world through the eyes of another civilization and this can only help us to have a richer and happier life.

    Boris Shekhtman, Michel Thomas and many other teachers who have influenced me were Jews. I don't think it is a coincidence. We think outside of the box; we experience things differently in a way that helps us to find solutions where others might not look.

    Jewish education is entirely built on questioning which I love.

    There is no memorization.

    The question, in fact, is more important than the answer in this approach to learning.

    It is also a very oral way of learning.

    In the Babylonian Talmud, the major Jewish contribution to the world, I believe, we have a record of thousands and thousands of very insightful discussions by some of the most intelligent people who lived at the time. One of the things they emphasize is to speak out your learning. Don't learn silently; speak it out.

    I love learning this way and intend to do so for the rest of my life.

    May I comment on your very nice words regarding me?

    I would express what you wrote in the following way:

    Ni shi yi ge hen hao de lao shi. Ni ye shi yi ge hen you yise de ren.

    Watch your "de" s:))

    I love my students and really respect them for having the courage to learn. That is why on the recordings, which were recorded with students who had never learned Chinese and issued without almost any editing, I try to keep things light.

    I really want the student to get great results.

    None of us need any more anxiety or tension in our lives especially when it comes to learning.

  8. Dr Harold,

    Thank you very much indeed for your comment! Of course "hen hao, you yise" (two words) so we need "de". That is the rule right?

    I have started the vocabulary course today and I think it is more demanding since you present new words in shorter time intervals.

    I am very much interested in history and I am trying to understand the Jewish approach. (I am aware of the Maccabees and the huge clash of cultures first with Hellenism and then with the Roman perception). In our age, I however see something which I cannot understand. On the one side there are the Orthodox Jews which pay massive attention to the scrips. At the the other side there are the secular Jews. Them, having grown in a traditional & spiritual environment, respect the tradition of their fathers and mothers but tend to be very open to the world and even accept the influences of other traditions and cultures. You said " I am an American… and also a well educated Jew" so I think you belong clearly to the latter category. (Michel Thomas as well seems to be a fully cosmopolitan Jew with a very diverse and exceptional life story. Probably Boris would also match this pattern). Could this great difference of understanding and approaching the word between these two groups be attributed to religious fundamentalism? Are these tensions similar (not identical) with the feelings of the Maccabees and the Hellenised Jews back in antiquity?

    And one quick question on learning foreign languages:

    Do you think it is possible for a committed student to learn two languages in parallel? German and Mandarin for instance? or your advice would be to stick to one until reaching a C1 level and then starting the other?

    Thank you warmly for your time and attention

    I hope one day to meet you in person and get a chance to talk in detail about your perceptions about the world, nature and of course language learning. Please keep up the insightful and very informative posts on your blog. I will also post my feedback from my China experience very soon and describe how much your course assisted me to deal with 1.3 billion Mandarin speakers 🙂



  9. Dear Julian

    Thanks for writing and keeping up this very interesting stream of questions and comments.

    I am now writing an article to discuss your question regarding my thoughts on secular and ultra-orthodox Jews. I hope that you will find it of interest.

    Yes, it is possible to learn two languages simultaneously but I wonder whether it would be advisable to do so. That is a personal matter. German and Mandarin would not at all conflict. However, similar languages like Spanish and Italian might lead to confusion.

    Michel Thomas told me that he needed a week apart in order to record the Italian and Spanish courses since it was so easy to mix them up.

    We will all find your posts from China of interest, I am sure. Have a wonderful trip and use your Mandarin wherever you have the opportunity to do so.

    Get a good phrase book like Lonely Planet and learn a few new things each day. Attempt to use them wherever you have the chance. If you do this you will learn a lot.

    Remember, Rome wasn't built in a day. Be patient and above all have fun.

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